My grandmother passed away last week. She was 85.
Due to a series of poor choices1, compounded by the geriatric randomness, her last few weeks were spent in a county nursing facility. So the platitudes we all hear2 about “being in a better place now” are most certainly true.
When I look back upon time spent with her, I can safely say she was one of the few3 souls I’ve known with any familiarity or emotional intimacy whom I’d considered tortured. Of course, being a teenager during the prime years of World War II4 left her with scars I can’t begin to fathom.
In the aggregate, she did the best with the skills she was afforded, in the environment she was dealt, in the cultural context of the era she landed in. And I understand and empathize with that.
Alas, she spent most of her retirement years searching for solace from those demons. Oddly repeating her first years in this country, she spent much of her retirement moving around. I think she was searching for happiness, as if it were a physical place you could pack up and move to. I’m not sure if she ever understood that many of the things that made her stressed and unhappy were within, along for every move, and getting rid of them to get to that “happy place” involved some serious self-unpacking.
That’s probably one of the lessons I’ve learned from her that I’m most grateful for5.
Experiencing the death of a family member
earlier in life prompted me to think more than I ever thought I would at that age6
about what happens when we die. And I find myself thinking of it again now.
Obviously, no one really knows what happens when we cease to be of this world7.
One of my favorite ideas about the immediate-afterlife is that of a grand movie theater… one of those that reminds us of Hollywood’s Golden Age8. A concession stand has all of our favorite treats. As we sit down in the empty theater—in our favorite row—an usher comes by and gives us a remote control.
As the movie starts, we soon realize it’s the story of our lives, from birth to death. As we get past the shock of watching ourselves be birthed, the purpose of the remote becomes clear: we can fast-forward, rewind, and zoom in and out of the movie unfolding before us. Think those movies with grandiose, interconnected plots9, that weave in and out of each other. Except… y’know… you and the people you knew.
That girlfriend that broke up with you? Now you’ll know the real reason why. That company you loved, who hired a director to replace you? Watch the scenes in the VP’s office and know what really happened. That first time you drove a car, or soloed in an airplane, or really felt like you grokked that Thing You Love: experience again how awesome it was. Those months after That Person died that were a visceral blur of emotion? You can watch those again too, in an as much or little detail as you’d like, as many times as you’d like. The fast-forward, rewind, director’s commentary, and “Special Features” buttons are yours and yours alone.
I find this idea alluring because parts of the life I’ve lived, I feel like I don’t have a clue why they unfolded the way they did. And as a pattern-matching engineer, that bothers me a lot. I really wish I knew the rich, complex story of the good times, so I could repeat them and the intricacies and influences of the bad ones, so I could avoid them in the future.
There’s a twist, though: this cozy theater, with all of your favorite snacks refilling endlessly, and an almost-infinite story to re-experience… sounds a little like purgatory. And that’s sort of the point.
As I go through life, deciding what it’s OMG REALLY IMPORTANT I care about and what may be less so… as things blindside me and I react (or falter while doing so)… as I think back on all the mistakes I’ve made, I hope such a great theater, where we truly get the opportunity to understand What Really Happened exists.
Part of me also feels like the goal of life here is that once we’re offered that ticket, we’re able to politely decline it, secure and happy in the choices we’ve made and the outcomes that ensued, and having made peace with the people and events that didn’t turn out the way we had hoped and planned.
I try really hard to live like that, even though I know I wouldn’t be able to decline that ticket right now… too many unanswered questions.
Assuming it’s anything like this, I suppose none of us knows how long we’d want to stay in that dimly lit theater, replaying our story… until that moment where that Featured Presentation starts.